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views of holland

In 'Along the Road' (1925) a young Aldous Huxley collected 'Notes and Essays of a Tourist', which contains a rather charming description of a visit to the lowlands.

Overall, his arm's-length irony (the book's opening chapter is on 'Why Not Stay at Home?') prevented him from describing much in the way of real travel experiences, expounding instead on the art treasures he finds on his class-prescribed Italian tour. But in an unexpected detour Huxley offers his 'Views of Holland', whose sheer flatness inspires him to great metaphysical heights.

A tour in Holland is like a tour through the first books of Euclid. Over a country that is the ideal plane surface of the geometry books, the roads and the canals trace out the shortest distances between point and point. In the interminable polders, the road-topped dykes and gleaming ditches intersect one another at right angles, a criss-cross of perfect parallels. Each rectangle of juicy meadowland contained between the intersecting dykes has identically the same area. Five kilometres long, three deep -- the figures record themselves on the clock face of the cyclometer. Five by three by -- how many? The demon of calculation possesses the mind.


And all the time, as one advances the huge geometrical landscape spreads out on either side of the car like an opening fan. Along the level sky-line a score of windmills wave their arms like dancers in a geometrical ballet. Ineluctably, the laws of perspective lead away the long roads and shining waters to a misty vanishing point. Here and there -- mere real irrelevancies in the midst of this ideal plain -- a few black and white cows out of a picture by Cuyp browse indefatigably in the lush green grass or, remembering Paul Potter, mirror themselves like so many ruminating Narcissi, in the waters of a canal. Sometimes one passes a few human beings, deplorably out of place, but doing their best, generally, to make up for their ungeometrical appearance by mounting bicycles. The circular wheels suggest a variety of new theorems and a new task for the demon of calculation.


Delightful landscape! I know of no country that it is more mentally exhilarating to travel in. No wonder Descartes preferred the Dutch to any other scene. It is the rationalist's paradise. One feels as one flies along in the teeth of one's own forty-mile-an-hour wind like a Cartesian Encyclopaedist -- flushed with mental intoxication, convinced that Euclid is absolute reality, that God is a mathematician, that the universe is a simple affair that can be explained in terms of physics and mechanics, that all men are equally endowed with reason and that it is only a question of putting the right arguments before them to make them see the error of their ways and to inaugurate the reign of justice and common sense. Those were noble and touching dreams, commendable inebriations! We are soberer now. We have learnt that nothing is simple and rational except what we ourselves have invented; that God thinks neither in terms of Euclid nor of Riemann; that science has 'explained' nothing; that the more we know the more fantastic the world becomes and the profounder the surrounding darkness; that reason is unequally distributed; that instinct is the sole source of action; that prejudice is incomparably stronger than argument and that even in the twentieth century men behave as they did in the caves of Altamira and in the lake dwellings of Glastonbury. And symbolically one makes the same discoveries in Holland. For the polders are not unending, nor all the canals straight, nor every house a wedded cube and pyramid, nor even the fundamental plane surface invariably plane. That delightful 'Last Ride Together' feeling that fills one, as one rolls along the brick-topped dykes between the canals is deceptive. The present is not eternal; the 'Last Ride' through plane geometry comes to a sudden end -- in a town, in forests, in the sea coast, in a winding river or great estuary.

He goes on to trace his tour of Rotterdam, "crowded with the traffic of a metropolis", The Hague, Delft, Haarlem, Hoorn, Volendam, Amsterdam with its "enormous courtesans" and "trick cyclists", the dunes of Schoorl like miniature Alps, and what he nominates as "the grandest sight in non-geometrical Holland": Zaandam.

In the streets are men in wooden shoes, smoking. Dogs drawing carts with brass pots in them. Innumerable bicycles. It is the real and not the ideal geometrical Holland, crowded, confusing, various, odd, charming.... But I sighed as we entered the town. The 'Last Ride Together' was over; the dear paralogisms of rationalism were left behind.

(Huxley, who mentions elsewhere that he travels in a Citroën, but nowhere names his travel companion, surely doesn't intend to invoke that other interpretation of Browning's exhilirating poem.)

'Along the Road' is all but unreadable online, so best go back to an old Chatto & Windus edition with an appropriately musty highbrow air.

Update: Here's a readable version of the full chapter, 'Views of Holland' (pdf). I'm not sure this is public domain yet, so should be taken as a preview.

a most wanted man

It's no more than fitting that most reviews of 'A Most Wanted Man', Anton Corbijn's slow-burning adaptation of John le Carré's novel, have centered on Philip Seymour Hoffman's swan song performance as a dogged, whisky-fueled German spy in a world where the rules have changed, or rather been thrown out.

However, arguably the film's greatest strength, faithfully transposed from the 2008 book, is the way it delivers its scathing political message purely through its plot. It is a masterful demonstration of 'show don't tell', embodied in the film by Hoffman's role as Günther Bachmann.

A Most Wanted Man - 1

Warning: book & film spoilers ahead.

In the panicky post-9/11 spy world - especially in Hamburg, where the attacks were partly hatched - Bachmann's patient, follow-the-money efforts to infiltrate a global terrorist network are deemed old-fashioned. His German superiors, with the Americans breathing down their neck, demand quick and spectacular results, and the whole intricate story builds up to a collision between Bachmann's long view and the American need for action.

As Le Carré synopsized in retrospect:

Bachmann’s self-devised mission is to put the score straight: not by way of snatch teams, waterboards and extrajudicial killings, but by the artful penetration of spies, by espousal, by using the enemy’s own weight to bring him down, and the consequent disarming of jihadism from within.

But times have changed. When the clash comes, in an explosive final scene, its dramatic effect is as thwartingly disillusioning for Bachmann as it is for the audience - like a chess game whose every careful move we've followed, suddenly destroyed by a tantrum-throwing toddler.

A Most Wanted Man - 2

The film then ends on a prolonged stunned silence, leaving the audience to conclude that this was not how chess is played, with collateral damage clearing the entire board. (Or more melancholy, that Bachmann and his fishing game had simply become outdated, his classic tradecraft an anachronism, which would make 'A Most Wanted Man' as much Le Carré's swan song as Hoffman's.)

But Le Carré's novel carried more political punch, as damning of modern state power as his earlier 'The Constant Gardener' was of corporate power.

At the very end of the book he permitted himself a short epilogue voicing what has happened. It is the only time the political dimension is made explicit, beyond the suggestion that the American intervention was just bad tradecraft.

'Where have you taken him?' Bachmann asked.
'Abdullah? Who gives a shit? Some hole in the desert, for all I know. Justice has been rendered, man. We can all go home.'
'Rendered?' [Bachmann] repeated stupidly. 'What's rendered? What justice are you talking about?'
'American justice, asshole. Whose do you think? Justice from the fucking hip, man. No-crap justice, that kind of justice! Justice with no fucking lawyers around to pervert the course. Have you never heard of extraordinary rendition? Time you Krauts had a word for it.'

Even if the film omitted this exchange, its culture shock is there, in subtext, and in Bachmann's final outburst of furious frustration.

one must in english

One still has to count one's summers, pass
one's sentence, snow one's winter

one still has to get the shopping done before
dark asks the way, black candles for the cellar

one still has to give the sons a pep talk, measure the daughters
for their suits of armor, teach ice water to boil

one still has to show the photographer the pool of blood
get unused to one's house, change one's typewriter ribbon

one still has to dig a pit for a butterfly
trade the moment for one's father's watch –

- Gerrit Kouwenaar

Translation by Lloyd Haft. Dutch version 'Men moet' posted here years ago.